Once upon a time, there lived a cruel and malicious king, whose evil tendencies had led his kingdom into despair and darkness. A great many of the king’s subjects lived in abject poverty and deprivation, while the nobles who ruled them prospered under the king’s rule. The suffering caused by the greed and ignobility of the noble classes had been made worse by a drawn-out war, begun most unnecessarily by the petulance of the king’s only son. The kingdom had won the war with a neighbouring principality, but at a heavy cost. The king’s son and only male heir was killed in battle, along with a large portion of the kingdom’s young men, for which the formation of a generous treaty, and the health of the king’s only other a child – a daughter – was poor compensation indeed.
The king cared very little for the loss of one fifth of the population, provided it did not inconvenience him. But for the women, children, and old men who remained, life was far worse than inconvenient. Dissent and rebellion naturally followed hard on the heels of the peace treaty – rebellion led primarily by the women who, until now, had been little better than possessions in the eyes of their men and of the law. One does not favour one’s sex too highly when one says that it was hardly surprising that a rebellion led by women will be more effective, more practically damaging, and more persistent, than any flash-bang nonsense conceived of by men. Howsoever that may be, the rebellion increased in number and strength over the course of several years, and the king, while hardly willing to grant that mere peasants could have enough power to challenge the noble classes, began to fear where this dissent would lead.
During this time, Princess Charmaigne reached the advanced age of twenty. She was in possession of great personal beauty, firm good sense, and little practical power, save that of being traded by her father to the highest bidder, which is no power at all. It was perhaps this last, at least as much as her good sense and moral judgement, that led her to sympathise with the rebellion her father feared. While she could no more understand with the struggles of poverty and deprivation than she could those of a cart horse, she certainly understood what it was to be treated as a possession. It was no surprise, then, that she should wish for any means to break free of her chains, golden though they might be, and that she was willing to go to any lengths to do so. Thus, when her father determined that she had reached an age to be married, she reached out to the rebellion and offered them her assistance.
It took some time for the leaders of the rebellion to trust that the princess was genuine in her wish to be rid of her oppressors, and even longer to be sure that, should the king somehow be disposed of, the princess would be a better ruler than her father. But in time, they agreed to a deal – the princess’s freedom for her service. Princess Charmaigne was only too happy to agree, and she immediately proposed to her father that they should celebrate her coming of age with a festival, culminating in a great ball, to which they should invite the nobility of all the neighbouring kingdoms, as well as their own. Her father, pleased with an idea that would bring his daughter into contact with so many eligible young princes, immediately agreed.
The princess was not the only young woman of the rebellion to come of age at this time. Among the rebellion’s most valued soldiers was a woman called Cinderella, although that had not always been her name. She had once had another, before her father died, and her mother had been forced by her family to marry a man of far less noble character (although of equally ‘noble’ birth). Her mother did not live long after this second marriage, and when she died, Cinder was offered a choice: to remain in the family as an indentured servant, or to be thrown out of the house. As she was only twelve years old at the time, she naturally chose the former, and joined the serving staff in her own home. Her two step-sisters were no better than their father, and despised their relative. They christened her Cinderella, for in winter, she was forced to sleep on the hearth with the other servants to keep warm, and she was almost always daubed with ash.
Cinderella knew they meant to offend with such a title, but she instead wore it as a badge of honour, as a sign that she had been ejected from the idle and frivolous noble class to which she quickly developed a great dislike. Her service in the rebellion was her most valued possession, and she served well.
While the rebellion was a serious hindrance to the noble classes – they attacked carriages, looted unsecured mansions, kidnapped noble families for ransom, stole goods and food intended for the palace, and generally made the country unsafe for those of high rank – they could not access the palace, nor could they hope to mount any meaningful attack on the king and his supporters without risking more lives than they were prepared to sacrifice. Unlike the king, they valued their followers.
For a time, they focussed solely on stealing and kidnapping enough to feed and clothe those who had been left homeless, jobless, or destitute because of royal policy. But as the rebels became more bold in their activities, the king became more angry, and sent soldiers into rebel territory in an attempt to stop them. These raids were rarely successful, as the king suffered the same prejudice toward women as much of his sex, and assumed only men could organise such effective resistance, and arrested only men. However, the violence the king ordered done in his name was still very real, and the rebellion determined that they must aim higher. It was then that they heard from the princess, and saw the opportunity to end what had become civil war without the loss of rebel lives. It was Cinderella to whom the rebellion turned now. Not only was Cinder a talented spy and warrior, she was still technically a noblewoman, although from a family not often included at court. Her invitation to the ball was thus secured, and the rebels set about providing Cinderella with the appropriate tools for her task.
On the day of the ball, and after many difficulties, complaints, and unforgivable abuse of the serving staff, Cinder’s step-sisters and step-father were borne away from the house in their carriage. Now Cinderella’s preparations began. It would have greatly surprised her step-family to observe the line of heavily-cloaked figures who filed, one by one, through the kitchen door once Cinder was sure it was safe. It would have surprised them even more to see these same figures emerging into the coachyard an hour later. Six of the rebellion’s most able fighters were dressed in uniforms of grey and black that hid their feminine appearance so well that their employers would not have recognised in them the quiet and mouse-like maids whom they were used to see. The coach that awaited them appeared to be that of a respectable noble-merchant – and indeed, this was what it had been constructed from. Or, more accurately, it had been constructed from several coaches of respectable noble-merchants, whose conveyances had been taken by the rebellion and reconstructed in the barn of a local pumpkin farmer.
Cinderella would not have been recognised by her family either – which was fortunate, as they would also be at the ball. Gone were her ash-daubed, frequently-patched robes, replaced by the dress of a noblewoman. Numbered among the stalwart matrons who organised the rebellion was a singularly skilled dressmaker, who had made the most of a shipment of luxurious fabrics that had been ‘liberated’ by the rebellion some six months earlier. This veritable magician had transformed several yards of heavy, dark grey silk into a dress that would have sent Cinder’s step-sisters into violent raptures.
It was fortunate, perhaps, that long gloves and powdered faces were the fashion at this time, for even in this disguise, Cinderella’s true occupation would have revealed itself in her chapped fingers and coarse cheeks. But the signs of Cinderella’s servitude were well-covered, her hair was curled and pinned with jewels, and her proud bearing would not have disgraced even the princess. The true gem of her costume – literally, as well as figuratively – were the sparkling, jewelled shoes that peeped from beneath her sweeping train. They were uncomfortable, despite being fitted for Cinder’s feet by the same fairy godmother who had created her dress, and rather garish to the more modest tastes of the wearer, but they served a greater purpose than mere decoration – they were intended to distract and disguise.
The princess had spent the week of the festival in alternate agonies of suspense and boredom. She had been courted by every eligible prince from five kingdoms, as well as several senior noblemen; her father had provided broad hints as to which he felt were the most suitable, which Charmaigne felt was rather pointless, since he would make the final choice regardless of her preferences; she had heard nothing from the rebellion, other than that the ball would be when they would strike, and that she should be prepared. When the night of the ball arrived, she could barely maintain her facade of polite interest as she sat at the Royal Table beside the father she hated and feared so much that she had effectively signed his death warrant. The rebellion had kept her mostly in the dark about their plans, in case she proved to be treacherous after all, and she had very little idea as to what form the rebellion’s action would take. She only hoped they would take it soon, before the attentions of Prince Errol of Stook forced her to take matters – and a steak knife – into her own hands.
The evening was well under way – and the king and his closest advisors well into their cups – when the princess saw Cinderella enter the ballroom. While nobody else appeared to notice the way the grey-clad noblewoman moved about the ballroom in such a way as to always keep the royal family in her line of sight, and how she always appeared to be measuring the distance between her and the exits, Charmaigne was sure this was the person she had been waiting for. For a moment, when Cinder looked up once again at the Royal Table, their eyes met, and acknowledgement passed briefly and unnoticeably between them. Charmaigne, her heart now thudding painfully in her chest, watched out of the corner of her eye (she was careful not to draw any attention to Cinder by staring) as Cinderella appeared to drop her reticule, briefly seemed to fix some problem with her shoe, and straightened herself. Charmaigne could hardly see what Cinder did next without looking directly, but as Cinder raised her fan to her face, a small, black mark appeared on the neck of the duke to Charmaigne’s left. The princess immediately realised the rebellion’s plan, and while it was not wholly unexpected, she found she had not been as prepared for the reality. Charmaigne forced herself not to stare at the tiny, thorn-like dart in the duke’s neck, and covered her brief shock by offering the duke more wine.
Over the next ten minutes, Cinder continued to move about the ballroom, fanning herself lazily as she walked, allowed to pass through the crowd without notice. By the time she turned to exit the ballroom, nine darts had embedded themselves in the necks of the king and his inner council. The most powerful leaders in the country, though they did not yet know it, had been assassinated. Cinderella paused in the shadow of a column outside the ballroom and bent down, returning the tiny blowpipe – with which she had practiced for months to attain the accuracy that would allow her to complete this mission (although when she had commenced such training she had not known how important it would be) – to her shoe. It had been decorated with jewels to seem like just another decorative feature, and fit neatly into place when its job was done. The poisoned darts were concealed in the raised heel of the other shoe, for the toxin they contained meant they could not be simply left lying around for innocent servants or gardeners to pick up. She paused for a moment, and removed the shoes from her aching feet – they would not help her either in fighting or fleeing, if she had failed to escape unnoticed, and they were fairly torture on one not used to fine footwear.
As Cinderella stepped toward the stairs, however, she was arrested by the sight of the princess coming toward her. She immediately feared that the rebellion’s trust had been misplaced – although it would not now save the king – and that she was about to be arrested. While she had always been prepared to risk arrest, and the inevitable death sentence that would follow, in her work, she did not welcome the idea. The princess, however, approached her wordlessly, and took her hands. Cinder saw there were tears in the woman’s eyes, and her heart was touched.
“I cannot ever thank you for what you have done,” said the princess. “You have saved all of us.” Cinder bowed her head, surprised at her embarrassment.
“I do no more than my duty,” she replied. There was a sudden outcry from within the ballroom, and she knew the duke must have succumbed to the poison in his veins.
“You must go,” said the princess, reluctantly releasing Cinder’s hands. “But please, tell me where I might find you, when this is over.”
Cinderella’s guard, who had been waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, ready to come to her aid if she might be followed, interrupted them.
“We must leave,” said the nearest, pulling Cinderella away from the princess. “There is no time. Princess, you must return to the ballroom. They will be looking for you.”
And with that, Cinderella was gone, running down the stairs with her shoes under her arm. She went to stop as one of them tumbled from her grasp, but her companions pulled her forward. The uproar in the ballroom was now spilling outside, and they had mere seconds before they were noticed and stopped. She was bundled into the carriage, her companions pulled themselves into their places outside it, and they were gone.
The princess, watching from the head of the stairs, saw the shoe fall. She had just time enough to run down and claim it before the chaos claimed her attention, and the true drama of the evening was revealed.
It was some weeks before the princess was at leisure to think once again of her rebel companions. She had sent them a message immediately after the assassination, thanking them, and vowing that she would keep her word when she was crowned queen, and set about repairing the damage her father had done to the kingdom. And she had already done so, forming a court so very different from her father’s as to be almost unrecognisable. Those few remaining nobles who might have challenged the new queen’s power were quickly sent away, and new laws and practices were quick in being formed. It would be many years before the kingdom would taste the true benefits of such change, but that it had begun, was enough to give the people something to live for.
Once these changes had begun, however, the queen was at liberty to think once again of the mysterious young woman who had made it all possible. She found her admiration for the stranger growing with every passing hour – the courage, intelligence and skill that would have been necessary to carry out such a feat were beyond what the queen had often seen, and she wished more than anything to be able to see the young woman again, and to speak with her. The rebellion had gone silent after it had acknowledged her thanks, and she could gain no information from them. But she had maintained her possession of the rather remarkable shoe that had been left on the palace steps, and she soon decided that it would be the most eligible way to find her hero.
Thus the queen, already established as a thorough eccentric, began her search through all the noble and semi-noble families of the kingdom, hoping to find the owner of the other shoe. She had little time to spare for such a search, and it was many, many weeks before it led her to the door of Cinderella’s house. Cinder’s step-father, perceiving that the queen had a great admiration for the woman who had worn the shoe, instructed his one of his daughters to claim it for her own. The shoe, however, was too small, and the queen abruptly ordered Cinder’s whole step-family to be placed in the town stocks for a day as punishment for lying. The sisters wailed at such a punishment, which was beyond anything they had thought possible (they were very sheltered). The commotion drew the attention of all the serving staff, who were greatly amused by such a sight, and Cinderella was astonished to see the queen standing in the drawing room, holding her lost shoe. The queen, as we already know, was a most observant young woman, and recognised Cinderella immediately, despite her dirty apron and chapped fingers.
“I believe I have something of yours,” she said, holding out the shoe. Cinderella, somewhat shocked, but also quite pleased, stepped forward to take it.
“Your majesty is quite welcome to keep it,” she said. “I have no use for such finery.”
The queen laughed at this remark, surprising Cinder’s fellow servants.
“It has served its purpose admirably,” said Charmaigne. “For it has not only rid the kingdom of those unworthy to rule it, it has brought me to one most certainly capable of replacing them.”
Cinderella’s surprise at such a remark rendered her temporarily speechless, but you may be sure that she was soon sufficiently recovered to make a respectful answer, and in time, she became one of Queen Charmaigne’s most capable advisors. The leaders and warriors of the rebellion – women, all – came into the public eye once they could be assured of their safety, and were as valuable to the queen as Cinder herself. As the years passed, the power of the noble classes was greatly diminished, and the welfare of the common folk most wonderfully increased. Under Charmaigne’s just rule, the kingdom became a peaceful, prosperous place, and the women of the rebellion were the most able and sensible leaders of this new society. The men of the kingdom naturally objected to having so much of their power taken away, but with such an able queen, backed by such able women, there was little they could do, and it was very few generations before they ceased their griping and settled comfortably into a more just, happy way of life.
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